Why I Said No

Chandani Patel was offered what she thought was her dream job, but she turned it down. Here’s why, and why she thinks other candidates might consider doing the same.

November 17, 2016

This year on the academic job market, the seemingly impossible happened: I landed a tenure-track job at a major research institution. It was not only a job in my field with responsibilities well suited to my interests, but one at a department and an institution that I felt good about. It was, in other words, the alignment of all the planets in this crazy economy of ours -- or, at least, so it seemed.

Before I went to the campus visit, a mutual friend put me in touch with the woman who had last held the tenure line and whose departure made the opportunity available. She had nothing but good things to say about her time there and offered encouragement and support. We even talked about the one thing I was most worried about: a job for my husband, who has a Ph.D. in English and works in a closely related field. We knew when we got married that the odds both of us would wind up with tenure-track jobs were long, but still, when my colleague told me that the department had made spousal hires a priority at multiple times in the past, we couldn't help but think that maybe, just maybe, this would all work out.

To make a long story short, I went, had a great visit, flew off to another one, returned home and then got the call: I got the job! I was thrilled, we were thrilled, and when I spoke with the chair and explained that my husband had also been interviewed during the first round, the chair was not only surprised but seemed optimistic, as well. It was a Friday, and he told me to email him with a list of requests that he could then bring to the dean, which I promptly crafted (with some input from a colleague) and sent off. Then it was the waiting game, and as all too often happens in such circumstances, it was a waiting game that also involved the beginnings of planning our lives in this new place.

Before I go on with the rest of the story and the outcome of all this, let me first mention that this institution is located in the South, in a small town, that is a bit difficult to get to and from. To many people, that would not seem like an ideal location to spend the next two to three years of one’s career, let alone potentially the next 20 to 30 years, but to us, it seemed ideal: it was charming, affordable, the department was great and the place offered a real sense of possibility in terms of growth for both of us. What’s more, we could have bought a house with space for the dog to run around, and we would have had opportunities to be outdoors most of the year -- something we both value quite a bit. So for us, this was, in fact, an ideal location and an ideal situation.

But the optimism was short-lived. On Monday, I heard back from the chair, and the news was bleak. I crafted my request as regards my husband in deliberately vague terms, asking merely for a “position.” But there was no possibility of anything, not even as an adjunct, not now and not for the foreseeable future. We then wrote back asking if there were any chance of him being considered for an admin position -- basically anything he was qualified to do, which, given his background, is quite a lot. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but we wanted to make it work.

Two days later, however, more bad news: no job for him, period. Therefore, taking the position that they had offered me would mean not only that I would have to leave my current job at the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching, but also that my husband would have to abandon his postdoc. We’d also lose our jobs supervising an undergraduate residential community, for which we are compensated with free housing, with no guarantee as to how long we would need to make it work on just one salary.

That was an awful lot of compromise, especially considering that my husband is really the one who wants to stay in academe, and I am much more ambivalent. (In fact, I had only applied to nine jobs, and it just so happened to be a year when many committees were looking for someone with my research background, so I got four invitations for campus visits.)

In addition to all that, we realized while mulling this over that we had yet another consideration: we were pretty sure I was pregnant, although we didn’t have confirmation until a few days later. I wouldn’t be able to start until January, which meant my husband really needed an income. Our current health insurance is quite good, while moving would have meant vastly higher costs associated with the new baby.

In short, I said no. I am well aware that my doing so comes from a position of relative privilege. The part-time job I took while working on my Ph.D. turned into a full-time job and the possibility of a rewarding career in higher education. My job, coupled with our college housing gig, meant that I was in a position to say no; a great number of applicants aren’t.

And there’s no doubt in my mind that the administration knew this, and that it played a significant role in their refusal of any kind of spousal support for my husband. The department made it clear that they were interested in both of us not only because of what we would have added to the curriculum but also because it would have meant that we would both have likely stayed for quite a long time -- a special consideration for them given how rapidly this particular position had turned over during the last decade.

But the administration thinks only in numbers -- at least that’s how it seems here. After many months of interviews, the search committee makes a decision based not only on a candidate’s qualifications but also on how their interests and personality fit with the department and institution overall. So much of academic life exceeds those duties and responsibilities listed on the contract. A faculty member is expected to be a part of the whole institution, in both formal and informal settings, which makes the process of hiring a new colleague exhaustive and exhausting for both parties. It seems, however, that there is a mismatch between these expectations or aspirations on the part of faculty and how administrators view the hiring process.

My point here is not to complain. I would have loved to have taken the position and made a life in this particular community. That said, the months since I decided that I am done with the tenure-track search have been some of the most relaxing and enjoyable I’ve had in a long time. I took a sewing class, can get back to reading books that have been collecting dust on my shelves, have nights and weekends free for the first time in a long time, and the constant “I should be writing!” feeling that still haunts my husband is no longer a part of my life.

I write this to remind people that the tenure-track life is one among many, and that just because you get an offer doesn’t mean it should be accepted at all costs. Whether or not to take offers when they come is a personal choice, one that should not be influenced by what advisers want, what peers tell you to do or the knowledge that the job market is insecure and jobs are fleeting.

There is much talk about how graduate students and postgraduates face economic, social and emotional instability as they take adjunct and other part-time positions that don’t offer much in the way of benefits. But what’s often left out of the conversation is how taking a tenure-track job can also lead to similar kinds of instability, since the expectation, it seems, is that job candidates will simply take a position and leave the rest of their lives behind.

In short, increasingly, the academic job market favors candidates who have no other obligations, are independently wealthy or who are willing to make huge personal sacrifices for the prestige of teaching, researching and working all the time. I chose to consider all of my priorities and not let the academic job market determine my worth.

Yes, that comes at a risk, and it involves a different type of sacrifice. I won’t be on the market again and have had to leave the work I love behind. Yet, all told, I would rather work toward a full life than one in which I constantly feel regretful, embittered or only partially valued.


Chandani Patel is an assistant director at the Chicago Center for Teaching at the University of Chicago.


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